Pocket jacks are the most reviled hand in hold ’em. They look so pretty, what with the two matching painted cards. But you know the deal: they’re so vulnerable to overcards that they become very difficult to play after most flops, and they’re not quite good enough to play with any confidence against a big reraise. Nobody likes to get too involved with JJ.
Theories on how to handle them vary. Some say to commit preflop, that hands as good as JJ don’t come around very often, and so you might as well gamble with them. Others will tell you to treat johnnies like they were pocket fives. Try to see a cheap flop and catch a set. The truth lies somewhere in between. JJ is a hand that requires a lot of subjective, situation-specific decision making, both before and after the flop.The following are two illustrative hands where I held JJ. As you’ll see, the johnnies didn’t disappoint. Both hands were nasty, treacherous affairs.
JJ HAND #1
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The situation: The Pokerstars $10 rebuy. This is a tournament with a big field and a surprisingly large prize pool. When this hand took place, about half the field was eliminated. The blinds are 300-600 with a 50 ante. My stack of 53,000+ was way up near the top of the leaderboard, in the top 10 total stacks. I’m in the small blind. The only other player at this table with a comparable stack is sitting in the cutoff, with a top 20 overall stack of 48,600.
Preflop action: As advertised, I have been dealt JJ. The action is folded around to the other big stack, and he makes a standard 3x the big blind open-raise to 1800. I was faced with my first decision of the hand. I was obviously playing my JJ. So should I have flat called or raised, and if I chose to raise, how much should I have raised? First of all, I was way ahead of this player’s range. At this point in the hand, I knew nothing about “$portyJ,” but a player in the cutoff with that stack could have been raising with a very wide range of hands. The second consideration was the fact that I’d be out of position after the flop. Third, the stacks were very deep, so trapping with the jacks (dubious idea at best under any circumstances) was out of the question. So I was raising.
How much to raise: All-in would have been ludicrous, risking 46,000 to win 3,000. Basically, I wanted to represent AA and end the hand right there. The number I settled on was 7,000. I thought this would look scary to the cutoff, basically sending the message “the rest of your stack is at risk if you call. ” It also was an amount that would allow me to get away from the hand somewhat cheaply if I was reraised all-in. I made my raise and “$portyJ” called. Hmm.
Analyzing the other player’s possible hands:
AA, KK: Many players would reraise with these holdings, but he certainly could have been trapping with them. I think QQ almost always would reraise all in. Pairs smaller than JJ: Many conservative players would throw away hands smaller than 99 here, but aggressive players have no problem calling off 15% of their stack, knowing they will probably double through if they hit a set. The odds he also holds JJ are so slim that I’m ignoring that possible holding.
AK, AQ: Many, if not most, players would reraise all in with AK here, but calling with it in position is possible. An AQ that wants to see a flop is also possible.
Something else: A conservative player would probably throw away everything else here. But a LAG (loose-aggressive) specialist, a new school player, would have no trouble calling my reraise and trying to outplay me after the flop. At this point I had no idea what kind of player “$portyJ” was, so this is roughly the analysis I did.
Postflop action: The flop came a dangerous, but not terrible, Qd 6s 5d. What now? Well, the flop only had one overcard in it, and since the ace was the overcard that really would present a problem, I felt my hand was best. In an effort to end the hand, I made a solid continuation bet of 10,000. And this is where things got hairy: “$portyJ” raised all in. Now my tournament was on the line. This situation called for quite a bit of analysis. What was going on here? Well, I figured these were the possibilities:
- “$portyJ” had flopped a set of sixes or fives;
- “$portyJ” had AQ;
- “$portyJ” flopped some kind of diamond draw; or
- “$portyJ” was putting a move on me.
This was one of those situation where you needed to know something about the player. And so, as my 60-second time bank started to tick down, I opened internet explorer and looked “$portyJ”‘s results up on ThePokerDB.com. I learned that “$portyJ” was a pretty accomplished player, with a lot of final tables in many rebuy tournaments, including the $109 rebuy on Pokerstars, widely considered the toughest tournament currently offered online. The vast majority of the players who do well in these tough tournaments are loose-aggressive new school players who get involved in a lot of hands and apply pressure in big spots. In other words, I felt that “$portyJ” was a player that was capable of calling my preflop reraise with a strange hand, and a player capable of putting a big postflop move on me. So options 3 and 4 were in play.
Next, I considered my standing in the tournament. I noted that I could fold my hand and still have over 36,000 chips, leaving me squarely in the top half of the field. So I would have lost this battle, but I’d be in good shape to win the war. Fine. I actually put the cursor over the fold button before I said “what just one second here,” and reconsidered the meaning of the comfort with which I could get away from my JJ. If I could comfortably fold, wouldn’t an accomplished player know this, and prey on it? Yes! Plus, which hands with a queen in them was I really afraid of? Only AQ. Did he have a set? Meh, not likely. In an instant, I was suddenly convinced that “$portyJ” was full of shit, or at best, on a draw.
And so I called with 12 seconds left on my time clock.He had A8 offsuit. I actually said out loud “what a call!” My exuberance was squelched 1.5 seconds later when an ace appeared on the river. Jesus.
JJ HAND #2
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The situation: A $109 multitable tournament on Party Poker. I have played solid for the first half of the tournament, and later got lucky when I picked up AA on a hand where two others held KK and QQ. I shot up near the top of the leaderboard, but now, with about 80 people remaining, a long run of cold cards has left me with an average stack. The tournament pays 40 players. As is the case in most online freezeouts, the stack-blinds ration is relatively low, i.e. the stacks are not especially deep.
The preflop action: The blinds are 300-600, I have almost 18,000 in my stack and I am 5th to act with JJ. The player to my immediate right raises to 1500, or 2.5x the big blind. The raiser has almost the same sized stack as me.
Analyzing the other player’s possible hands: With stacks as short as ours, both the raiser and I cannot afford to commit ourselves speculative hands. Plus we have to expect the very short stacks across the table to push all in with a lot of reasonably good hands, so it does not make much sense to get involved with anything but solid holdings. Plus, the raiser is in early position. His range is probably something like all pairs from AA through 88, plus AK, AQ, AJ, and KQ. Even a hyperaggressive player will not get involved with junk under the table conditions I have outlined. He has to have a serious hand here (notice how position and stack size severely alter this player’s range, contrasted with my opponent in example #1).
So what’s my play?: Here is an approximation of what went through my head:
Well, my JJ is ahead of his range (only QQ, KK and AA are crushing me), even though it’s a fairly tight range. Still, we are close the money and our stacks are fairly short, which means I am likely to get a call from many of the hands he could be holding, including AK and AQ. Do I want to race for all my chips so close to the money? Plus, there are still 5 players left to act behind me, and one of them could wake up with AA. So maybe I should just call here and see what flops. But wait, my stack is pretty short, and how many more JJ or better hands are gonna come along? But then again, JJ is so vulnerable, maybe I should just fold. nah. But JJ is so vulnerable ugh. This is a great example of how tough a hand JJ is to play. In the end, I decided I was ahead of the raiser’s range and should raise.
How much to raise: Well, there was 2400 in the pot and I had about 18,000 behind, so an all-in move would have been perfectly reasonable. But, since I was holding JJ and did not want a call, I decided to represent AA. And what would AA do in this situation? AA would make a smallish raise designed to further commit the original raiser to this pot. I gave this player credit for being able to recognize that a smaller than all-in raise signified more strength than an all-in raise, raised to 7500, and prayed for a laydown. Instead, what I got was a push from the small-stacked button and a flat call from the raiser. What does all this mean?
Well, the push from the short stack was of little concern. He could have a wide variety of hands and didn’t have enough invested to hurt me. But the call from the original raiser should have set off an alarm in my head. Why in the world would he flat call for almost half his chips? The answer is simple. Because he has pocket aces. All the other hands in his range don’t want to play after the flop. This is especially true of AK and AQ, which want to see all five cards for the same price, and also true of QQ and KK, which don’t want to have to make decisions when overcards flop. He would shove with those hands. There is an outside chance that he would try and stop-and-go (flat call then shove any flop) with a hand like 1010 or 99, but more likely he’d just fold them preflop. His flat call equals AA and no other hand.
I want to take time out and let you know that the information contained in that last paragraph did not make its way through my brain in that exact format. All that went through my brain when this hand took place (around 2:00 am last night) after his flat call was “hmmm, how peculiar. He must have a big hand.” And that’s a problem. The flop came K 9 6 rainbow. And what happened next was atrocious.
Postflop action: The original raiser checked. I did sense that something was amiss, so I checked too. Fine so far. The turn was the 7d. Now the original raise made a feeler-looking bet of about 2850, leaving him with a measly 5600 in his stack. What now? Well, if I had bothered to apply some simple logic, I would have long since deduced that he held AA and was trying to suck me into this pot. Further, almost every other hand in his range was beating me with that board. KK was now trip kings. AK was top pair. 99 was a set. What was I beating? 1010? AQ? The only logical conclusion was that he had made a suck bet designed to lure me in.
So what did I do? I made a strange, implusive decision to shove all-in, walking right into his trap. Pathetic. What was I thinking? Honestly, I don’t know. Brain farts like these are bad things.
See, I told you I would post hands where I lost. Now I’ve posted one unlucky one along with one where I played like a complete fucking fool.
So what lessons are there to be learned from these hands? Well, I hope that I’ve outlined some of the basic considerations (e.g. stack size, position, etc. ) that go into preflop and postflop decisions, not only with pocket jacks, but in general.
But also, the outcomes of these two hands make another important point. And that is how important it is to concentrate and stay “in the moment” when you’re in a tournament. While I was playing the first hand, I did a detailed analysis of all the evidence in front of me, and reasoned through it. I enabled myself to make a great call (regardless of end result). While I was playing the second hand, I was mentally lost in space. I was perfectly capable of making the detailed analysis I presented in this blog entry in my head as I played the hand. But I didn’t, and I ended up doing something impulsive and incorrect. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I was distracted. Maybe I was drunk. It doesn’t matter.
My point is that a good player will always focus and be able to reason through a hand at his fullest capacity when necessary. A lot of people think that putting an opponent on a specific hand is a gift, a magically acquired ability, but it really isn’t. Those with this supposedly innate quality have the acquired ability to think with extreme clarity when they are under pressure. This is something that can be learned. As you can see, I’m still a work in progress.
I don’t think there’s a hand harded to play sometimes than pocket hooks. In my opinion, there really is now easy way to play them. Sometimes I just feel like laying them down preflop (but of course I never do unless circumstance dictates).